Those of you who might be expecting some narrative of my weeks of confinement at St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, are bound to be disappointed. My purpose today is to address the recent statements of two organizations within the Church seemingly at loggerheads on the matter of health care reform.
On Saturday, the Catholic Health Association of the United States of America announced that the Senate health care reform plan enjoyed that association’s blessings, with some minor difficulties which needed to be fixed prior to passage or before enactment.
On Monday, Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on behalf of the bishops saying that the Senate Health Care plan, while containing many admirable features is unacceptable because of far too generous abortion provision language and, sadly, its passage would have to be opposed by the bishops of the United States.
There you have it, two highly respected organizations representing the same Church of Jesus Christ on opposite sides of the street during this seemingly final week of deliberations and action. What should a serious Catholic make of all of this?
First, in the interest of full disclosure, I ask that you recall that:
- I am an elected member of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Health Association, serving the first year of my second three year term. Because of my well known illness, I have been unable to attend any CHA board meetings since last June and until only the last few days have been either unable or unwilling to read Board documentation. Therefore, as I write this¸ I have no personal knowledge of any discussions held and/or actions taken by the governing board prior to last Saturday’s press conference by Sister Carol Keehan, our president, and a woman whom I deeply admire for her history both in Catholic health care provision and pro-life advocacy.
- I am also a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Again because of my lengthy and well publicized illness, I have been unable to attend or participate in any USCCB plenary meetings since November 2008 and until the last few days have been either unable or unwilling to read Conference documentation as well.
- Finally, for nine years I served as either Associate General Secretary for Public Policy Advocacy of the old NCCB-USCC or as General Secretary of the same, acting as the Chief Operating Officer for six years.
During the time of my confinement, I have been led to believe that CHA and USCCB were working together to eliminate any language in the health care proposals which threatened the effectiveness of the long standing Hyde amendment which prevents federal monies (your tax dollars and mine) from providing abortions. The USCCB skillfully acted as a major player in gaining the Stupak amendment to the House passed Health Care Reform Bill last Fall. CHA in the end supported the Stupak language.
CHA prefers the health care reform vision of the Senate bill as they deem it ultimately more successful, more efficient, and more effective than the House passed version. USCCB has no major objections to the language in the Senate bill as it relates to the delivery of services except for the need of greater inclusion of immigrants and its abortion language. CHA agrees that there are problems with the abortion language (or in some instances the lack thereof) in the Senate bill but offers that it can be fixed in the “reconciliation” process or after enactment. The bishops say in response to this basically, “that will be far too little and much too late.”
CHA says that general access to health care benefits is a right of all citizens and every effort should be expended to see that it is made available. USCCB agrees but says nothing in the law can or should either extend abortion “rights”, use taxpayer monies to pay for abortions through new insurance possibilities, or in any way infringe on the right of conscience of those opposed to participating in what they believe to be morally illicit procedures.
At the very beginning of this national debate, CHA and USCCB had a long record of working together for genuine, real health reform so that remains and does not divide.
So today, the Catholic Health Association says we are willing to accept the Senate version of health care reform with the understanding that the less than perfect working document must and will be improved later in the process.
And also today, the elected leader of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Francis George says passing the Senate bill will produce too large a loss of moral integrity and the Conference can not risk fixing things outside of the legislative process. He wants health care but finds the Senate bill requires too high a price with woefully inadequate abortion language and conscience protection proposals. The bishops want the Hyde amendment to apply fully which the House bill does and the Senate bill does not.
As a member of the Board of the Catholic Health Association, I too want universal access to health care in this country to all our inhabitants. But I do not wish it through a vehicle that expands abortion rights or weakens conscience clause protection. So I side with the USCCB on this one. Were the bishops’ conference asking for new legislation, further tightening access to abortion or writing new abortion language law, it would have trouble. From the beginning the bishops have said only we must insure that we keep what we have.
I hope and pray that in these final decisive days, the Congress will see the wisdom of the Church’s position on abortion in health care as articulated by the bishops and the experience and wisdom of the Catholic Health Care providers who yearn for a reform of a system which is failing and becoming incredibly expensive – to maintain and to access.
If this were a tennis match, it would not yet be “game” but “advantage bishops.” However, the game is still not over although it is approaching match point. I would hope that Congress will see the wisdom and find the ways to fully apply the Hyde amendment so that both CHA and the USCCB can unite in general support of health care reform that protects the life and dignity of all.